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Palm Sunday, April 1, 2007 | 6:30 p.m.

Cheers and Tears

John H. Boyle
Parish Associate, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 118:1–2, 19–29
Luke 19:28–44


To say that the world is in a mess is, in today’s parlance, a no-brainer. To declare that polarization is the order of the day is to state the obvious. But, to a greater or lesser degree, the world has always been in a mess. For example, there is a war going on somewhere in the world most any time you stop the clock or put your finger on some part of a spinning globe of the earth. And that is to say nothing about the presence of hunger, poverty, natural disasters, fatal car accidents, drive-by shootings, and a variety of other awful happenings and tragic events that occur daily. This has been true for centuries and is still so.

Likewise, there has been and is a good deal of either/or thinking that has characterized public discourse and governed action. Dualities of good or evil, love or hate, war or peace, black or white, win or lose, we or they are regularly acknowledged to be mutually exclusive and pit both individuals and groups against one another, sometimes with devastating effects. Whereas it may seem that it is either one or the other, upon further thought we are aware, for instance, that in every gain there is a loss and that every loss holds some sort of gain, if not sooner, then later.

Yet we are often reluctant to think in terms of both/and. Rarely do we see things as a mixture, a contradictory mixture, but rather prefer to harbor the illusion that they are pure and undiluted. It is easier that way. It simplifies things to see only black and white. The gray mix is more ambiguous and hence more uncomfortable, less certain, and more anxiety provoking to live with and to deal with.

Which is why the story of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday, especially as Luke describes it, is so descriptive of much of life. The juxtaposition, as Luke tells it, of celebration by the people who saw Jesus entering the city as conquering hero is in sharp contrast to the image of Jesus weeping over the city and then later going to a cross for the sake of the city over which he wept. It is as though Luke was metaphorically reminding his readers that life is not made up of either cheers or tears, either palm branches or cross beams, but of both cheers and tears, times of celebrations and times of sorrow, times of triumph and times of tragedy.

Sometimes what is deemed new and unique by one generation is old hat to others who have been around for a while. A good deal of what passes for an innovative breakthrough of ideas is often a retread, a recycling of ideas that have been around for a while, tweaked a bit here and spun a bit there so that they appear to be brand new. The new is what sells in the marketplace.

I was reminded of this recently when I read about the phenomenal sales of a book by Rhonda Byrne entitled The Secret. An article in the March 5, 2007, issue of Newsweek magazine documented how the secret is really not much of a secret at all. It has many progenitors, going back as far as 1862 with the writings of Phineas Quimby, in 1952 with Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, and, more recently, the works of Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dyer, and others.

In this same vein and more to the point is a new book by psychologist Philip Zimbardo entitled The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. Some will take issue with his contention that evil is learned, not inherent in us, arguing that what is learned is how to do evil and that the capacity for both good and evil is part of our humanness from the start. Either way, what Zimbardo is pointing out is that even goodness has its dark side, its shadow, as Carl Jung noted many years ago. That there is this fragility in human goodness that allows for the possibility that good people can turn evil is yet another illustration of the contradictions within us and shows that life and people cannot be reduced to simple either/or categories. After all, the prodigal son in the parable Jesus told, though changed when he came to his senses sitting in the slop of a pigpen, nevertheless was still on the take when he went home and declared that he was no longer worthy to be called a son but was willing to be a servant, a hired servant, that is. Yes, he was still on the take.

Even God may have a dark side, noted Jim Garrison in 1982 in his provocative book The Darkness of God. Garrison maintained that God was at work even in the atom bombing of the Japanese city of Hiroshima decades ago during World War II, calling us to “a transformation of consciousness and understanding” that enables us to take the wrath of God seriously, while realizing that apocalypse is “something that will not be done to us by divine fiat alone, but is something that might well be done by us through our own decision, God working divine wrath through our arrogance.”

The story of Palm Sunday is our story as well, the story of life not as either joy or sorrow, but as an admixture of both, even though we would prefer that it be the one rather than the other. The hosannas of the crowd, which, interestingly, Luke does not refer to as do the other Gospel writers, were not only cheers of jubilation, hymns of praise, and songs of triumph in anticipation of God’s victory over their enemies. They were also cries of desperation of an oppressed people, oppressed under the heel of Roman rule and tyranny. “Hosanna” means “Save us, we beseech you! Save us!” Whatever amount of elation was present, there was also present the painful awareness of the bondage of Rome that was a reminder of an earlier bondage in Egypt.

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is often referred to as a triumphal entry. But, like beauty, triumph is in the eye of the beholder, and sometimes that is far less than 20/20 vision. There is a thin line between illusion and reality. Consider “Mission Accomplished” in a banner hung on an aircraft carrier a few years ago, and then consider what has been happening since in Iraq. Not a great deal of triumph in all that. Nor was there on that day in Jerusalem, in spite of all the cheers, when Jesus rode into the city not on the white charger of a conquering hero, but on a lowly donkey—hardly a symbol of triumph. In reality, the crowd was not cheering Jesus that day. They were cheering their illusions about Jesus, and cheering illusions can be ultimately dangerous.

Jesus entered Jerusalem in a manner that seemed to the people to fulfill the prophecy that their king would come, triumphant and victorious, humble and riding on a lowly beast of burden. By doing so, Jesus declares he is Israel’s King Messiah. But the way he does so repudiates the militaristic and nationalistic ambitions that the people and their religious leaders associated with such a King Messiah. For Jesus was a marked man when he entered Jerusalem that day. The forces, both political and religious, that deemed him a dangerous revolutionary and an irritating rabble-rouser had already sealed his doom. He rode into Jerusalem with a price on his head, where later would be planted a crown of thorns.

Only in Luke’s Gospel do we see Jesus weep over the city following the joyous celebration over his entry into it. Later he would go to a cross for the city over which he wept. Jesus wept because the sight of Jerusalem brought home to him with sudden force the tragedy that hung over it. “Wept” is a strong word here, describing the brokenhearted sobbing of people at a funeral. Jesus realized that the people were putting their trust for salvation in force of arms and in military might to put down Rome’s tyranny and oppression and bring in the kingdom they desired. He knew that such a strategy would only lead to the total destruction of Jerusalem, for the power of Rome was greater than any military force they could mount.

Besides, Jesus’ idea of the kingdom of God, the reign and rule of God, was radically different from the people’s idea of kingdom. He knew that the things that make for peace—truth and honesty, mercy and compassion, justice and equity, forgiving love and reconciliation—could not be realized through military might and political power. They failed to see that, in Jesus, God had already visited the people and offered them a different salvation, but they didn’t understand, They didn’t get it. They missed it. The time of their salvation had come and gone without their being aware of it. And Jesus wept.

Noted biblical scholar William Barclay, in his commentary on the Gospel of Luke, observes that “the tears of Jesus are the tears of God when he sees the needless pain and suffering in which people involve themselves through foolish rebelling against God’s will.” World War I chaplain Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy put it this way in his poem “When Jesus Came to Golgotha”:

When Jesus came to Golgotha,
They hanged him on a tree.
They drove great nails through hands and feet,
And made a Calvary.
They crowned him with a crown of thorns;
Red were his wounds and deep.
For those were crude and cruel days,
And human flesh was cheap.

When Jesus came to our town,
They merely passed him by.
They wouldn’t hurt a hair of him,
They simply let him die.
For men had grown more tender,
They would not cause him pain.
They simply just passed down the street,
And left him in the rain.

Still, Jesus cried, “Forgive them, for they know
   not what they do.”
And still it rained a winter rain
That chilled him through and through.
The crowds went home, the streets were bare
Without a soul to see.
And Jesus crouched against a wall,
And wept for Calvary.

The crowd cheered. Jesus wept.

I find myself wondering why I think and feel that all this sounds so contemporary, so here and now, so front page, so today, and so Iraq and the Middle East, as we try to figure out a way to extricate ourselves from the quagmire of craziness called war.

Or was it that Jesus was a fool. Interesting that this year Palm Sunday falls on what is often referred to as All Fools Day or April Fools Day, a time when jokes are played on unsuspecting folk. Was it a fool, a clown, who rode into Jerusalem long ago, with his words about love and compassion, peace and justice, forgiveness and reconciliation, and of the God who would always be with us through thick and thin, in both the cheers and the tears of our lives? Or is the joke on us? Are we the fools for allowing ourselves to be convinced that to make it in this world we’ve got to lie and cheat and steal and kill off those who get in our way? Or in a more benign way, are we the fools for falling for the proposition posed by the perpetrators of a “chirpy” kind of religious faith that if we just believe and pray, all the goodies of life will come our way?

A number of years ago, Aldous Huxley wrote a novel about the world of tomorrow entitled Brave New World. It was certainly new. All the harsh and cutting experiences of life had been cancelled out. Pain and trouble were unknown. The Controller or Chief Director of Utopia proudly announces, “It is Christianity without tears.”

Perhaps that is what all of us want really, especially if one’s life has been one of more tears than cheers, more heartache than hosanna. God knows there are more tears throughout the world than cheers these days. No wonder the author of the book of Revelation, writing to cheer up and reassure early Christians who were suffering persecution at the hands of imperial Rome, describes with vivid imagery a heavenly vision in which God will be with them and will wipe every tear from their eyes and in which there will be no more death, sorrow, pain, and crying.

In the meantime, however, there are both cheers and tears, hosannas and heartaches to contend with. Years ago, a friend of mine sent me a birthday card on which were the colorful picture of a clown and the words “May all your days be circus days.” I don’t think my friend realized that the circus not only has clowns who are funny but usually at least one who is sad. Or did he? Dare we embrace both the cheers and the tears in life as reflective of what it means to be fully human?

When Jesus rode into Jerusalem, he rode into human life and human experience with its joys and sorrows, cheers and tears, hosannas and heartaches. He rode into the midst of life as we live it day by day. When he wept over the city of Jerusalem, he identified with the sadness and suffering of people. And when he went to the cross, he partook of the fullness of our humanness with all its grandeur and with all its grimness, and he did so, as one preacher once put it, “up to the nail prints in his hands and the crown of thorns on his brow.”

And so tonight he rides into our lives, not on a picnic journey, but on a mission to bring us together with God and God’s love, to bring us together with one another as human beings made in God’s image and for whom Christ died, and to let us know that in both the highs and lows of life we are not ultimately alone. That’s part of what this table is for: to remind us of all that. It’s what the church does when truly being the body of Christ in the world, caring for one another so that when one member suffers and weeps, all suffer and weep together, and when one member is honored and cheered, all join in the cheers.

Years ago, when the great Boulder Dam was constructed in the western part of our country, bringing fertility to vast areas that had once been desert, a plaque was erected upon the dam with the names of those who had died helping to build it. Inscribed on the plaque were these words: “These died that the desert might rejoice and blossom as the rose.”

Sometimes tears are shed before cheers are shouted. In either case, God is with us, weeping when we shed tears of sorrow and rejoicing with us when we shout cheers of celebration.

Dare we believe it?

Dare we live it?

Dare we?